February 26, 2024

Anyone who’s joined a video call during the pandemic likely has a global volunteer organization called the Internet Engineering Task Force saying thanks for making the technology work.

The group that helped lay the technical foundations of the internet created the language that will allow most videos to run smoothly online. This allowed someone with a Gmail account to communicate with a friend using Yahoo and customers to securely enter their credit card information on ecommerce websites.

Now the organization is dealing with an even more difficult problem: the elimination of computer technology terms that are reminiscent of racist history, such as “master” and “slave” and “whitelist” and “blacklist”.

What started as a serious proposal stalled, however, as members of the task force debated the history of slavery and the spread of racism in technology. Anyway, some companies and technology organizations have made advances and raised the possibility of key terms having different meanings to different people – a worrying endeavor for an engineering world that needs broad consensus for technologies to work together.

While the battle over terminology reflects the unsolvability of racist problems in society, it also points to a particular organizational culture that relies on informal consensus to get things done.

The Internet Engineering Task Force does not vote and often measures consensus by asking opposing factions of engineers to hum during meetings. The buzz is then rated for volume and ferocity. A heavy humming, even from a few people, could indicate severe disagreements, a sign that consensus has not yet been reached.

The IETF has established strict standards for the internet and for itself. By 2016, the documents in which the standards are published had to be exactly 72 characters wide and 58 lines long. This format was adopted from the time programmers stamped their code on paper cards and fed it into early IBM computers.

“We have big battles with each other, but we always want to reach a consensus,” said Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the task force and vice president at Google. “I think the spirit of the IETF is still that when we want to do something, we try to do it in a way that we can have a unified expectation that things will work.”

The group consists of around 7,000 volunteers from all over the world. It has two full-time employees, a manager and a spokesperson, whose work is funded primarily through dot-org’s fee collection and internet domain registration fees. Giants like Amazon or Apple cannot be forced to follow their guidelines, but tech companies often choose to do so because the IETF has created elegant solutions to technical problems.

Its standards are worked out during heated debates on email lists and in face-to-face meetings. The group encourages participants to fight for what they think is the best approach to a technical problem.

While screaming matches is not uncommon, the Internet Engineering Task Force is also a place where young technologists step into the industry. Attending meetings is a rite of passage, and engineers sometimes use their suggestions for task forces in job postings from tech giants.

In June, amid the protests against Black Lives Matter, engineers from social media platforms, coding groups and international standards bodies re-examined their code and asked themselves: Was it racist? Some of their databases were called “masters” and were surrounded by “slaves” who received information from the masters and answered queries on their behalf to keep them from becoming overwhelmed. Others used “whitelists” and “blacklists” to filter content.

Mallory Knodel, the chief technology officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a political organization, wrote a proposal that the task force should use more neutral language. The appeal to slavery alienated potential IETF volunteers, and the terms should be replaced with terms that more clearly describe what the technology does, argued Ms. Knodel and her proposal co-author, Niels ten Oever, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Amsterdam. “Blocklist” would explain what a blacklist does, and “Primary” could replace “Master,” they wrote.

Answers came in on an email list. Some were supportive. Others suggested changes. And some were vehemently against it. One interviewee wrote that Ms. Knodel’s draft was trying to set up a new “Ministry of Truth”. Amid insults and accusations, many members announced that the fight had become too toxic and that they would break off the discussion.

The pushback didn’t surprise Ms. Knodel, who proposed similar changes in 2018 without gaining traction. The engineering community is “pretty rigid and averse to such changes,” she said. “They are averse to talking about community behavior, behavior – the human side of things.”

In July, the Steering Group of the Internet Engineering Task Force issued a rare statement on the draft by Ms. Knodel and Mr. ten Oever. “Exclusion language is harmful,” it said.

A month later, two alternative proposals emerged. One came from Keith Moore, an IETF staff member who initially supported Ms. Knodel’s design before creating his own. He warned that the struggle for language could affect the group’s work and advocated minimizing disruption.

The other came from Bron Gondwana, the executive director of the email company Fastmail, who said he was motivated by the sour debate on the mailing list.

“I could see that there was no way we were going to reach a happy consensus,” he said. “So I tried to thread the needle.”

Mr. Gondwana suggested that the group should follow the example of the technology industry and avoid terms that would detract from technological progress.

Last month the task force announced that it would form a new group to examine the three drafts and decide on how to proceed. The members involved in the discussion appeared to be in favor of Mr Gondwana’s approach. Lars Eggert, chairman of the organization and technical director for networking at NetApp, hoped that terminology guidelines would be published by the end of the year.

The rest of the industry isn’t waiting. The programming community that manages MySQL, a type of database software, chose “source” and “replica” to replace “master” and “slave”. GitHub, Microsoft’s code repository, chose “main” instead of “master”.

In July, Twitter also replaced a number of terms after Regynald Augustin, an engineer with the company, found the word “slave” in the Twitter code and advocated changes.

While the industry is giving up obnoxious terms, there is no consensus on what new words to use. Engineers make their own decisions without the guidance of the Internet Engineering Task Force or any other standardization body. The World Wide Web Consortium, which sets guidelines for the web, updated its style guide last summer to encourage members to use terms such as “master” and Avoiding “slave”, and the IEEE, an organization that sets standards for chips and other computer hardware, is weighing a similar change.

Other technicians are trying to solve the problem by providing a clearinghouse for ideas about changing languages. This initiative, the Inclusive Naming Initiative, aims to provide guidance to standards bodies and companies who want to change their terminology but don’t know where to start. The group came together while working on an open source software project, Kubernetes, which, like the IETF, accepts contributions from volunteers. Like many others in the technical field, the terminology debate began last summer.

“We saw this loophole,” said Priyanka Sharma, general manager of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, a nonprofit that manages Kubernetes. Ms. Sharma worked with several other Kubernetes employees, including Stephen Augustus and Celeste Horgan, to create a rubric that suggested alternative words and walked people through the process of making changes without breaking systems. Several large technology companies, including IBM and Cisco, have committed to following the guidelines.

Although the Internet Engineering Task Force is moving more slowly, Eggert said it will eventually set new guidelines. But the debate about the nature of racism – and whether the organization should weigh the matter – continued on its mailing list.

In a reversal of the April Fool’s joke tradition within the group, several members submitted proposals that mocked the pursuit of diversity and the urge to change terminology in the technology. Two prank suggestions were removed hours later because they were “racist and deeply disrespectful,” wrote Eggert in an email to the task force participants, while a third remained open.

“We kind of create consensus the hard way, but in the end the consensus is usually stronger because people feel that their opinions have been reflected,” Eggert said. “I wish we could be faster, but on controversial issues like this, it’s better to be slower.”